Local legislators discuss priorities for year

Published 1:03 am Sunday, January 14, 2018


NATCHEZ — State senators and representatives are now two weeks into the 133rd regular session of the Mississippi Legislature, and many local leaders have already prioritized the work they feel is most important to the state and to Natchez.

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said atop his list, as always, is creating a balanced budget.

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Dearing, who sits on the appropriations committee among his other various duties, said the balancing of the budget is a constitutional duty of lawmakers and a process he particularly enjoys.

“I look forward to the budget process,” Dearing said.

Not to mention, Dearing said, he wants to see his dogfighting bill pass into law.

Dearing began crafting a dogfighting bill after the discovery of 56 dogs in a suspected fighting ring outside of Natchez in the Cranfield community.

The bill, if passed, would create harsher punishment for those convicted of dogfighting.

“I certainly want to see that happen,” Dearing said.

One concern Dearing has, he said, is a proposed new funding formula for education in the state.

The new formula, the Associated Press reports, would give $107 million more to K-12 schools, but divides the funding in such a way that some districts, such as Natchez, would actually lose funding.

Under the new formula, the Natchez-Adams School District would lose approximately $69 in state funding per-student.

Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said he shares concerns over the new education funding bill.

“I am not going to support anything that decreases funding for Natchez schools,” Johnson said. “We haven’t fully funded MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) in two years. Every school needs better funding. Everybody needs more.”

Johnson said he has spoken with the creators of the new formula, nonprofit EdBuild, and said that a version of the plan could provide better funding across the state but, as it stands, he does not look favorably on the proposed plan.

Johnson, who is also a member of the committee on Medicaid in the Mississippi House of Representatives, said funding healthcare in Mississippi is, as always, one of his top priorities.

“We have had sustainable hospitals in the area, and the only way we continue to do that is to fully fund and expand Medicaid,” Johnson said. “Until we do that, we won’t see the growth we need. I’ll continue to be attentive to that area.”

Johnson said he is also looking at local recommendations for a tax increase that would fortify police forces in the area.

“I’ll continue to do what I’ve have done and that’s move the state, and our region, forward,” he said.

The first step in completing that mission, Johnson said, is already complete.

Representatives unanimously passed Thursday a bill to send $108 million to cities and counties to pay for roadways and bridges.

The state collects more than $300 million in use taxes, and this bill would designate 15 percent of those funds to counties, 15 percent to cities and 5 percent to local government grants.

“That will be a big help,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he fears that the bill would take from other government agencies.

“I will go along with (the bill) as long as it doesn’t take money from mental health or public schools,” he said.

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, said he has many goals for his second year as chair of the committee on public health.

“One, I want to find ways to help rural hospitals,” Mims said.

One of those prospective changes, Mims said, is a change in hospital pair models that could help increase federal reimbursements for outpatient care.

“This is needed for rural hospitals in Mississippi,” Mims said.

A second goal for the 2018 legislative session, he said, is to expand the use of telemedicine in rural areas.

In a telemedicine model first tested by the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for Telehealth, patients are remotely serviced and monitored by a provided device that connects the individual to a healthcare representative.

“We’ll be able to tell from that system how the patient is faring,” Mims said. “It was a highly successful program.”

With just three months ahead, local leaders have a lot to accomplish.

“Hopefully,” Dearing said, “we can get through it all on time.”

Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, could not be reached for comment.